Sunday, 5 May 2013

Acts 1 - The Power of Prayer

Books have a certain style to them.

Authors have certain themes they return to.

Writers have a distinctive use of language.

You can tell from the way it’s written that it’s an Agatha Christie.

You know Endeavour, like Lewis, is based on Colin Dexter’s Morse not only from the Cameo appearances of Colin Dexter but also from the snatches of opera that pepper each story, if snatches of opera can ever pepper a story!

Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dikcens,  Thomas Hardy.

Each has their own style of writing, their own distinctive use of language and the particular themes they each explore and come back to.

Each of the New Testatment writers has their own style; each uses language in their own way.

Matthew has the feel of the Hebrew Scriptures, not least in the structure he gives his book.

Mark has a breathless immediacy as he writes in short sentences, often starting with the word ‘and’.

John writes in a thoughtful, reflective style that is as much at home in the world of Greek thought as it is in the world of Hebrew thought.

Paul has the complexity of a deep thinker who is capable of the simplest of writing and writing that can seem quite dense.

Of all the writers of the New Testament, Luke’s language and style is the most precise.  It’s the closest you get in the New Testament to the great classical writers of ancient Greece.

Luke too has themes he particularly focuses on.  And those are apparent through the Gospel according to St Luke and through the second part of his two volume work, the Acts of the Apostles.

Three of those themes emerge in the second part of chapter one.  All three connect with things that have happened here at Highbury in the past week.  All three connect with what it is we should be doing in living our Christian lives.

The first of those themes is apparent right at the outset …

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, 

 At every turn through Luke’s gospel, Luke notices the way Jesus prays.  When he is about to choose his twelve apostles, when Peter makes his great confession of faith near Caesarea Philippi – Luke finds Jesus at prayer.   Often the references Luke makes are not found in the other gospels.   It’s a theme that emerges in the Gospel and then comes into its own in the Acts of the Apostles.

If prayer is the driving force of Jesus, how much more must prayer be the driving force of the individual Christian and of Christians together as they come together as the body of Christ.

James Montgomerie lived in troubled times and was passionate about his Christian faith.  Editing the Iris, a radical newspaper in Sheffield at the time of the French Revolution he was imprisoned for a while for his radical views.  He campaigned vigorously against the slave trade, he campaigned against the introduction of a national lottery at the time of the Napoleonic wars, something that held sway right through till the 1990’s.  And underpinning his passion for a  Christianity that speaks to the world and its needs a passion for prayer.  Two of his hymns are among the fines hymns on prayer.

1     Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
       Uttered or unexpressed,
       The motion of a hidden fire
       That trembles in the breast.

2     Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
       The falling of a tear,
       The upward glancing of an eye
       When none but God is near.

3     Prayer is the simplest form of speech
       That infant lips can try;
       Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
       The majesty on high.

4     Prayer is the contrite sinner's voice
       Returning from his ways,
       While angels in their songs rejoice,
       And cry: 'Behold, he prays!'

5     Prayer is the Christian's vital breath,
       The Christian's native air,
       Our watchword at the gates of death;
       We enter heaven with prayer.

6     Prayer is not made by us alone:
       the Holy Spirit pleads,
       and Jesus, on the eternal throne,
       for sinners intercedes.

7     O thou by whom we come to God,
       The Life, the Truth, the Way!
       The path of prayer thyself hast trod:
       Lord, teach us how to pray!

James Montgomery (1771-1854)

He captures the profound depths of prayer and the simplicity of prayer.  It is not a matter of finding the write words, but it is the very life breath we breathe as Christians – an attitude of mind that is at home in prayer by the kitchen sink as in the loftiest cathedral.

1     Lord, teach us how to pray aright,
       With reverence and with fear;
       Though dust and ashes in thy sight,
       We may, we must draw near.

2     We perish if we cease from prayer;
       O grant us power to pray!
       And, when to meet thee we prepare,
       Lord, meet us by the way.

3     Give deep humility; the sense
       Of godly sorrow give;
       A strong desiring confidence
       To hear thy voice and live:

4     Faith in the only sacrifice
       That can for sin atone;
       To build our hopes, to fix our eyes,
       On Christ, on Christ alone;

5     Patience to watch, and wait, and weep,
       Though mercy long delay;
       Courage, our fainting souls to keep,
       And trust thee, though thou slay.

6     Give these, and then thy will be done:
       Thus strengthened with all might.
       We by thy Spirit and thy Son
       Shall pray, and pray aright.

James Montgomery (1771-1854)

He recognises the need to sit at the feet of Christ and learn to pray.

Prayer the first of those great themes of Luke’s gospel and of Acts.

Another of his great themes comes in this very passage.

Luke notices who it was who gathered together in that upper room for prayer.  It is not just the 11 remaining apostles who are named, it is also the women.

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Luke it is who tells of Elizabeth and Mary in the birth narratives and records the wonderful words of the Magnificat, Luke it is who tells of the prophet Anna who is the first to tell of the coming of the messiah in the Temple precincts.

Were it not for Luke we would not have known of the small group of women who made Jesus’ itinerant ministry happen.  And through Acts as well women as well as men figure large in the life of the church.

At the very time James Montgomerie was campaigning and living out his Christian faith there was a passion in these islands to spread the Gospel of Christ far and near.  In 1795 our missionary society came into being, the London Missionary Society, many here will recall collecting for the LMS.  The story of its foundation is the story of prayer, and in particular it is the story of women who in many different parts of the country met together for prayer.  Their zeal was to spread the gospel in this country and all over the world – our church was founded by among others some of those who had been very much at the heart of the London Missionary Society’s work – it was part of that missionary zeal to plant new churches in the new towns of England and in 1827 Cheltenham was one of those new towns.

And the third of the theme that permeates Luke’s Gospel and then comes into its own in Acts is that the Christian faith needs a body of people.  You cannot go it alone we need each other.  Everyone is important and it is important to have the right people to play their part in what is a servant leadership.  And so comes the account of the way the apostles fill in the gap left by Judas – seek the right person for the job.

The come up with their job description.

So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’

They come up with a job description, they then look for the right person to fill the post.  And they find two.  So with good biblical precedent they cast lots for them and the lot fell on Matthias: and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Acts then becomes the story of all the things, the ‘acts’ that group of people and others who were drawn to them .did as the church of Jesus Christ grew and spread from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth.

Three themes.

Prayer, the Christian’s vital breath
Women, at the heart of the life of the church
Shared leadership in a servant ministry

They connect with Highbury this last week.

One of the great missionaries associated with the LMS was David Livingstone.  We may not be marking the bi-centenary of his birth in this country particularly, but in Malawi they have been.  President Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first woman president, was over here at a service at the tomb of David Livingstone in Westminster Abbey and visiting Blantyre.  Last year a group from our CF visited Malawi.  We welcomed some of the Malawi Olympics team as the scout group tended the flower beds that were planted in the shape of the Malawi flag.

And three from Malawi joined us for the afternoon on Thursday.  Master, the head of a large school, Nellie and Alice.

We shared with them, they shared with us.

And as our conversation came to the end it was what the two women said that stuck in my mind and came across so much to me.   Nellie spoke of the need they saw in their churches in Malawi to have to move on in their worship and to work hard at keeping their young people as they grow up.  And the key she saw was to work on plans for change and underpin that work in prayer.  When our time came to a close and she led us in prayer it was moving to sense the power of the prayer she shared, though much of it was in her own language, Chichewa.

Then the other of the women, Alice, spoke of the need to seek leaders in the church who themselves would be the kind of people to empower others so that everyone’s gifts could be released.

Forthright women sharing insights from Malawi that spoke very much into our own church situation.   Emphasising prayer … just as the first church did.

And then leadership.  We shared the documentation we have been working on to re-shape the way we organise things.  I feel inclined now to put the documentation to one side.   We want to build up that sense of a shared team ministry leading the church in such a way that will empower all of us to share the gifts God has given us.  The task is to do as these people did at the first and look for the right people to fill the roles we have identified. 

Servant leadership … at the heart of the life of the church in these earliest days in Jerusalem.  Servant leadership that empowers the longing in Malawi.  And exactly that in the life of our church here today as well.

Let’s devote ourselves to prayer, recognise the part we all have to play, women as much as men, and seek the right people for that shared ministry we seek to share in the life of the church here at Highbury.

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